A Plea for Picture Books

As a librarian in both a public library and an elementary school library, I am in the unique position of watching both parent s and teachers help their students choose books to read.  As a result I have noticed a trend toward moving children away from picture books into chapter books at younger and younger ages.  Most recently I had a preschool teacher ask me to recommend a chapter book to read aloud to her preschoolers.

My question to her, and to everyone, is, what is the rush?  I told her I would be happy to show her some possible chapter books to choose from, but I didn’t understand why she would move her students away from picture books so soon.  With all the wonderful picture books that are being published every year, why are we pushing our small children away from these books and into chapter books , that even though they may be equally well written, don’t have the quality and quantity of pictures to add to the understanding and the overall reading experience of a small child?

Particularly for non-readers, the illustrations add a depth to their understanding of the story.  In This is Not My Hat, Jon Klassen’s new Caldecott Medal winner, we need to see the weeds where the small fish intends to hide out after stealing the big fish’s hat.  We need to see the crab pointing the way to the small fish’s escape route.  The illustrations are an integral part of the storytelling, and the fun is watching the child figure out what is happening to the small fish after all.

Wordless picture books are even more important for small children in developing their vocabulary, their ability to decode the illustrations, and tell the story in their own words through their observation of the pictures.  My granddaughter, a very active 4-year old loves the wordless picture books because they allow her to interact with the book and the adult, and discuss both the action in the story, and the individual elements in the pictures.  We loved perusing the illustrations in Jerry Pinkney’s Caldecott winner, The Lion and the Mouse.  Her twin brother, however, much prefers his books with text.  He wants to hear the story read to him, not produce the story from what he sees.  He loves the combination of story and song in Eric Litwin’s Pete the Cat series.  I would not think of pushing either of them into chapter books any time soon.
Think of the classic books that would be missed by the older elementary crowd.  For example, Patricia Polacco’s wonderful picture books on so many topics.  She writes wonderfully complex stories like The Junkyard Wonders, with  great pictures to bring the story to life.

Do you want a story about bullying?  How about reading  Big Bad Bruce by Bill Peet.   It is a great story about a bear that bullies the animals in his forest, and is brought down to size by a witch.

For a western flavor try Saving Sweetness and Raising Sweetness by Diane Stanley, for an account of a sheriff saving an orphan from an outlaw and a mean orphanage mother.

Another picture book author not to be forgotten is William Steig, with Doctor DeSoto or Sylvester and the Magic Pebble.  His vocabulary is challenging, and his stories are riveting for adults and children.  Or try The Amazing Bone, where Pearl the pig and her amazing talking bone escape the clutches of the hungry fox.

A prime example of complex thoughts and emotions delivered in simple pictures are presented in Mo Willems Elephant and Piggie books. A whole range of emotion is delivered through Piggie’s interactions with Gerald and the reader. Take a look at We Are in a Book. Better yet, read it to your 1st grader(s) and watch them laugh along with Gerald as the reader delivers Piggie’s word, “Banana.” That is not to say that Mo Willems books are only for early elementary students. His more recent book Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs, and The Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed are perfectly suited to 3rd graders who will not only understand the jokes, but will also internalize the lesson on individuality presented by the mole rats.

My last comment to the previously mentioned pre-school teacher was her students will probably read chapter books their whole lives, but the time to read picture books is short.  Let us not rush them out of picture books before they have experienced as many of the classics and just plain fun stories that the picture book format has to offer.

- Betty Jane O.


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